Interactive Music: Merging Quality with Effectiveness

Computer Music Authoring Systems/Tools (cont.)
Interactive Music
Page 1
  Page 2
  Page 3
   Page 4
Related Links

Digital Modules (MODs)

With MOD music, composers have no boundaries, as in Redbook audio. They can create any sample they wish from a WAV or any other Pulse Code Modulation based file and control it much the same way that high end artists use a sequencing program such as "Pro Tools" by Digidesign. Put simply, its like taking an MPEG file, splitting it up into its component instruments, and then putting it back together again. Once the composer loads in the instruments and the playback information they are all stored in a package less than 2 megs in size, which takes up processing speed but also allows for MIDI-like control over the music events and instrument effects. Tracks can be individually faded, blended, and manipulated in much the same way as MIDI files using an onboard synth, but without the restrictions. Effects can be achieved easily by either applying them to samples before they are inserted, or in the tracker itself with a number of specific commands.

Currently the biggest hindrance of MODs, as mentioned before, is the difficulty in actually writing the music using "tracker" programs such as Impulse Tracker or ScreamTracker (both freeware, incidentally). Impulse Tracker does have MIDI control, however the lack of quantization and manual editing of step-time notes can be difficult in such an exact program. Some composers have mastered such tracker programs and produced instrumental and even vocal music to rival the best of Redbook. However the task takes years of practice, years that budding conventional composers don't have. But wait, there is a solution on the horizon. Carlo Vogelsang and his team at Digital Dreams Multimedia, programmers of the MOD-playback engine "Galaxy" (currently in use by Epic Megagames) are developing a sequencer that lets developers use the same control as in wavetable synth composition with the flexibility of MOD sample creation and manipulation. Composers will be able to create or load any sample they wish and sequence it in "Cakewalk / Logic Audio / Cubase" fashion. Samples will be compressed and stored so that processor speed in games or other applications isn't sacrificed, and the resulting music will potentially be as expressive and impressive as commercial Redbook audio.

Using MOD music (specifically Impulse Tracker files) in Unreal has given my team the ability to be as creative as they want to be when writing the tracks while still keeping the sound quality of near to CD music. Not only that but the level designers are also very pleased and impressed with our ability to use MODs to jump from track to track or fade from segment to segment giving a very subtle transition. For instance, if a level designer wanted a fast paced action segment to jump in right at a specific point or fade quietly out, or even switch to another area, we could write that into the music very easily since the Unreal Engine provides the level designers with transition commands in their level editor. The results are from what we have heard very effective, more so than MIDI and Redbook.

The appeal and usefulness of MODs is not something that is attractive to all computer game musicians by any means. Some composers highly prefer having instrument sets predefined. It is much less hassle than hand picking, tuning, and tweaking every instrument for a game soundtrack. The fact that creating Redbook audio lets composers use any means at all for composition also makes it much easier to concentrate on the music itself rather than trying to make support for the different kinds of hardware. MIDI onboard synth, Redbook, and MOD soundtracks all are effective ways of making game music, but most agree that some sort of digital streaming technology will overtake onboard synth efforts. The facts prove conclusive given the recent influx of Redbook audio and MOD music being more popular over General MIDI and even XG and SoundFont tracks. The most advanced games being made today are using the former two, notably Epic Megagames' Unreal (MODs), Ion Storm's Daikatana (Redbook audio). Hits such as Wipeout (Redbook audio), Origin Systems' Crusader series (MODs) and even long before that the great NEC TurboDuo console game Lord's of Thunder (Redbook Audio). Soundcard synth technology may very soon come close to production quality (see below concerning the Yamaha "SW" series), but at the moment the consensus is that streamed digital music sounds sufficiently better in quality to be preferred by most game players.

The question that then comes to mind for the present is "how can manufacturers create effective hardware support for streaming digital music?" Here we come to something of a quandary, and a small history lesson for those who aren't already familiar with it. For over two years the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (IA-SIG) of the MIDI Manufacturers Association have been trying to incorporate a standard for a "downloadable sample" technology, which in fact will not stream digital audio but use an advanced synth engine. Similar to MOD technology, this standard is slated to allow composers to create samples of any kind, provided they are complied with the ROM or RAM allotted to process them, and use them on special processors on every soundcard manufactured. We will discuss their current progress with this and their "Interactive Audio Engine" shortly, but for those who have been wondering what is going on with downloadable samples, making a standard for them is a very difficult task. This is mainly because manufacturers such as Creative Labs and Yamaha, two of the largest soundcard manufacturers, have plans of their own concerning expanding General MIDI (or GM for short) standards: GM was the standard that set a bank of 127 instruments on all wavetable soundcards. So getting all soundcard hardware to play the same ballgame is a hefty task in itself, and not a task that hasn't been attempted before. Let's recap.
PC Computer Music History 101, From AdLib to GM Next Page